Are you ready to fall head over heels for one of Portugal’s most enchanting destinations? We are talking about Sintra, of course – a magical town and municipality located just a short hop from Lisbon. Sintra’s castles and palaces are like something out of a fairytale book. This is no exaggeration. The colorful Pena Palace, for example, is perched magnificently atop a hill overlooking the town and visiting it makes you feel like royalty.
Then there is Quinta da Regaleira – part of the UNESCO-listed “Cultural Landscape of Sintra” – which is a property donning all sorts of cool features such as fountains, tunnels, caves and grottoes. You might have seen photos of its spiral stairway on Instagram and thought “where is that”? Well, now you know. But Sintra isn’t only architecture – the nature of the area will also enthrall you. Sintra-Cascais Natural Park is blessed with fantastic hiking trails to venture on and you might even spot exotic wildlife along the walks.
So, what is the best way to experience Sintra? Here, we cover all the relevant details to help you make the most of your trip – including: the most unique activities, the top tours with an outstanding local company called MoonShadow Tours, how to get there from Lisbon, how long to go for, what to bring for a day or overnight stay, how much it costs and the time of year to visit. By the end of the article, you will be equipped with all the information you need to immerse yourself in Sintra’s endless charm.
The Most Unique Things To Do in Sintra
It’s a given that Pena Palace is already on your Sintra bucket list, so we don’t need to explain the reasons why you should check it out. Instead, we take a look at the most unique things to do in Sintra that many travelers overlook. The first is Quinta da Regaleira (as mentioned above). Built in 1904 by the wealthy Portuguese businessman Carvalho Monteiro, Quinta da Regaleira is just as hauntingly beautiful as it is endlessly mysterious.
The architecture is believed to hide symbols related to Freemasonry. Discovering the series of gardens, tunnels, wells and towers is a captivating experience that leaves you in awe and pondering the purpose of the property. Next up is Moorish Castle. When the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula many centuries ago, they constructed this grand fortification on one of the peaks of the Sintra Hills. The walls slither across the hills like a snake and the views at the top are nothing short of spectacular.
Another hidden gem of Sintra is the Park and Palace of Monserrate. The palatial villa is surrounded by a botanical garden boasting both Arab and Indian styles. It’s a lovely spot to wander around and relax for a few hours. Heading west, outside of Sintra town itself, is the picturesque coastal village of Colares. Highlights of this town are the majestic rainforests nearby and the gorgeous beaches. Colares is regarded as one of Lisbon Coast’s best kept secrets. Finally, Cabo da Roca as it’s the most westerly point of Europe.
Best Tours in Sintra: MoonShadow Tours
MoonShadow is run by an amazing local guide, Catarina. She has always lived in Sintra and it has a special place in her heart. Catarina’s private tours help guests see the history and culture of the region by offering exceptional day trips that go beyond the tourist trail. In these experiences, she tells stories about the myths which characterize the town and shares her passion for the sacred spot known by the Celts as “Monte da Lua”. The name, MoonShadow, was even inspired by these fascinating legends.
More than just a tour guide, Catarina prides herself on being a storyteller. Her mission is to show travelers the total package of Sintra, which involves many different perspectives and off-the-beaten-track sights. One of her best sellers is Magic Sintra. It’s a full day from 9:00 am to 18:00 pm that combines the most popular attractions with unknown destinations. Not only will you get to visit Pena Palace, Moorish Castle, Quinta da Regaleira, and the Park and Palace of Monserrate, but also Colares and Cabo da Roca.
There are several extras on this adventure that make it rewarding, like stopping for traditional pastries and dipping your toes in the sea. It’s little moments like those when you travel that stick with you forever. The second Sintra-focused tour that Catarina leads is Sintra & Cascais. Again, it ticks all the boxes in terms of palaces with the added bonus of ending in Cascais. On route to Cabo da Roca, you pass by the gems of Praia do Guincho and Boca do Inferno. You can’t go wrong with either of these tours.
How to Get to Sintra from Lisbon?
The distance from Lisbon to Sintra is around 30 km, which on paper sounds very short, but there are a few crucial things to keep in mind. The first is that traffic entering Sintra can be hectic. By hiring a car and driving there yourself, you run the risk of being stuck in traffic for hours and no one wants that. And that is before we even mention parking. This is why it’s preferable to go with an experienced tour guide like Catarina (who knows which routes to take to bypass the traffic) or to jump on the local train.
The train from Lisbon is less than an hour. It leaves from Rossio Station. Ideally, you would catch the train early in the morning to take full advantage of your day in Sintra. Trains leave frequently in summer and the return ticket is cheap. However, once you arrive in Sintra by train you will be quite far from the old town and the various castles. The main attractions are located pretty far from each other, which means you will have to spend a lot of your day taking taxis (or public transport) and walking.
It’s so much easier and more enriching to book with MoonShadow. When you consider the fact that Catarina’s tours include hotel pick-up and drop-off, transport and a driver, insurance, free WiFi, fresh water, etc., you start to see the value for money and overall better experience you will have. The Magic Sintra tour, for instance, starts at €70 per person for a group of two and gets progressively cheaper per person the bigger the group – just €42 per person for a group of eight. For this reason, it’s a no-brainer to do.
How Long Should You Visit For?
The options for how long to spend in Sintra range from half a day to overnight stays of two or three nights. Of course, you could visit for longer if you wanted to dive deeper into the culture of the region. It all depends on how much time you have in Portugal as a whole. For short vacations of one or two weeks, a full day is more than enough. For those exploring the country for months, you could easily dedicate a whole week to Sintra.
The problem with half-day trips is they only allow for two or three palace visits. By taking the train you are pressed for time, but on a guided tour it’s still possible to tick off the main sights in six hours or less without feeling too rushed. Bringing your own vehicle is only a viable option if you plan on staying overnight in Sintra. This way you could park your car at the hotel and take taxis, buses, tuk-tuks and walk between each attraction.
Some More Important Tips Before You Go
The key items to bring for Sintra are the following: appropriate clothing to suit the time of year, good walking shoes to traverse the cobbled streets and steep walkways, sunscreen, a camera, and money to pay for the monument tickets and meals for the day. These are all essentials for Catarina’s tours as well because entry fees and meals aren’t included in the price (although everything else is). If you are staying in Sintra overnight, you can pack a day bag and leave your suitcase/backpack at a hotel in Lisbon.
Prices for each castle and palace vary but in general they are affordable. It only costs a lot if you try to visit every single one and have to pay for many people (like large families). There are ways to save money though. You can visit the Parques de Sintra website and grab yourself a family deal. It’s hard to put a specific number on how much you would spend in Sintra, but budget for more than you think and you will be pleasantly surprised.
Summer is peak season and with that comes large crowds to Sintra. The upside is that if you head west to Colares or Praia do Guincho you will be able to swim in the sea. That being said, places like Cabo de Roca still offer sensational views in winter. Spring and autumn are ideal for avoiding the crowds, enjoying moderate weather and hitting the trails at their most verdant. Ultimately, when and how you visit Sintra is up to you. We are sure you will have a wonderful time however you choose to experience it!